How do you represent social media on television?
They’re very different visual languages, is the main issue – text and images might flash on-screen, superimposed next to a character’s phone, but even then, it’s difficult to capture how different the two are in terms of style and speed and basic aesthetics (television is landscape, but social media is portrait). If nothing else, it’s difficult to make “sitting scrolling on your phone” a visually interesting thing to do: maybe the glare of the screen casts a harsh blue light on bleary eyes or illuminates a downcast expression, but it’s never the most engaging thing to watch a character do.
That’s part of the challenge that BBC One’s new psychological thriller Chloe has taken on. (Well, “psychological thriller”, but we can get to that in a moment.) The drama – headlined by Erin Doherty, previously of The Crown – is about a young woman called Becky, filling her days with temp work and spending her nights caring for her mother with dementia, never far from her mobile phone and almost always scrolling through social media. That’s how she begins and ends each day, checking not-quite-but-clearly-meant-to-be Instagram to see how everyone else lives their lives, comparing the picture-perfect alternative to her own less than ideal life.
There’s one account that Becky follows in particular: Chloe Fairbourne’s. For Becky, Chloe is somewhere between an obsession and a compulsion – her social media posts fill the screen, and writer/director Alice Seabright contrasts the vivid colour grading on those photos with the much more drab, ostensibly ‘realistic’ tones of the rest of the drama. Sometimes, the figures in each photo almost turn to look at Becky, as though to invite her into their world, but it serves only to underscore how distant – and unreachable – that life really is for her. It is, on the whole, quite a clever way of representing social media in a television drama – it’s used sparingly, and doesn’t overwhelm the rest of the series, but that break with realism is a neat way to capture the heightened unreality of the online world.
Chloe dies. Seemingly, she commits suicide – after posting some lyrics from The Smiths, that is. Her friends are understandably bereft, and so too is Becky, her most dedicated social media follower. Desperate to know more, Becky creates a new identity for herself, and works her way into Chloe’s friends’ lives, pretending to be someone she’s not to learn more about someone she thought she knew.
Marketing for Chloe has positioned it as a thriller about parasocial relationships – the kind of one-sided fascination people internalise as a mutual connection, previously limited only to celebrities and their most dedicated fans but now just a fact of the internet. It’s not, strictly speaking, a spoiler to reveal that this isn’t quite true, and there’s more of a connection between Chloe and Becky than initially meets the eye – it’s this as much as anything else that drives the drama forward across its six-episode run. It’s also not really a spoiler to say that Chloe really only fits the loosest definition of a “psychological thriller”, in a lot of ways much closer to a typical mystery drama presented with a bit of flair. Neither of those things are a flaw necessarily, just worth raising if you were anticipating something different; if nothing else, it at least means there’s still space for a really good psychological thriller about parasocial relationships out there one day instead.
Whatever it is, it’s worth watching for Erin Doherty’s lead performance as Becky. She’s a difficult character to get to grips with, constantly dissembling as she leads her double – triple – life, but Doherty holds her contradictions together well; Doherty flits from room to room and character to character, whether she’s Maria or Sasha or Becky, each identity as malleable as it is distinct, picked up or cast away as easily as opening an app. There’s something quite impressive about how quickly and how subtly Becky inveigles herself into Chloe’s still grieving social group – at times the character can feel a little distant and difficult to connect with, but that’s very much the point, and Doherty does a great job of implying depth while maintaining that calculating remove and blank ambiguity.
Ultimately, Chloe is very much of a piece with any given Sunday night BBC drama, but there’s nothing wrong with that particularly. It’s a little hard to judge on the basis of its opening episodes alone, but it’s got a strong cast (Billy Howle always nice to see) and gestures at some interesting ideas. You could do worse?
Chloe starts on BBC One on Sunday 6 February at 9pm. I’ve seen the first two episodes of a total of six before writing this review.
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